October 25, 2012

Splitting The Atom

From Bangkok we took a 9-hour train ride south to embark on nine days of island-hopping. Along the way we passed rice fields lined with banana trees and coconut palms. The time flew by. It was fun to take in the agricultural scene of Thailand.

Researching this island portion of our trip was hilariously confusing. All of the names looked the same to us, and we could never keep them straight. Koh Samui, Koh Similan, Koh Surin, Koh Phangan, Koh Phi Phi….ummm, okay. Now we know that “Koh” just means “island”, and we’re getting the hang of it. At this point we could probably even pick them out on a map.

Our first order of business was to get our international scuba diving certifications. We could have done this a long time ago, but it's half as expensive to get the same certification in Thailand as it is in San Diego or Australia. We chose the island of Koh Tao, which has recently overtaken Cairns, Australia for issuing the most certifications in the world.

Before arriving, we had read this anecdote from one of our favorite review sites:  
Not sure about now but Koh Tao was always like people coming back from a dive, talking about diving, maybe still wearing a wet suit (with the top bit rolled down) and laughing about diving. Are you getting the diving theme coming through? And they act as though they split the freaking atom rather than just went under water and saw some fish.

This made us laugh, and so we deliberately went into it with a laid back attitude. We were careful about choosing our dive shop and went with one that teaches in groups no larger than four. We ended up with our own private instructor from the UK. Nice! 

We spent our first couple of days with instructor Sarah in a classroom learning all of the theory and techniques. Part of us liked the notion of setting aside a few days out of the year to do some learning. Part of us was utterly not used to the reality of having a school night with homework. Let’s just say that beyond currency conversions and map navigation, we haven’t really exercised our minds academically in quite a while. All of a sudden we were learning about Boyle’s Law, buoyancy, nitrogen, decompression sickness, valves, regulators, and hyperbaric chambers. Of course Steve breezed through this like a champ. I was the slow kid in our group of 2. After a couple of initial freak-outs (in a depth so shallow that we could stand up), I finally got used to breathing like Darth Vader.

I don’t know why, but I never anticipated how much boat time is involved in scuba diving. Have I ever mentioned that I get motion sickness? On our first dive, I threw up four times. 
We liked to call it “feeding the fish”.  

By the time we left Koh Tao we had done 6 dives and received our lifetime certification to dive up to 18 meters or 60 feet. Yay! Many, many years ago we both tinkered around with a little game called Jungle Hunt for the Atari. 

That was then, and this is now. 

There are lots of neat things about scuba diving, like how small we look compared to the massive underwater world. It was fun to glance up and see the sun shining through the water surface 50 feet above us. The fish are big, and unlike with snorkeling, you have the freedom to get close. Having a tank of your own air strapped to your back makes you feel like a valiant underwater explorer.

In our dive log (AKA lab composition notebook), we kept track of the sea life that we saw:

Blue-spotted stingray, glass shrimp, angel fish, bat fish, butterfly fish, banner fish, file fish, trigger fish, parrot fish, pink clown fish, puffer fish, big eye fish, scorpion fish, crocodile fish, soldier fish, sergeant major fish, chocolate damselfish, goatfish, needle fish, grouper, cobia, fusiliers, breen, and trevally. We also swam through a school of about 100 yellow-tailed barracuda. So cool.  


We saw two crown-of-thorns star fish, which are responsible for destroying 40% percent of the Great Barrier Reef. They are much bigger than we had imagined, and they look like a mix between a star fish and a cactus.

There were giant clams, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, nudibranches, and christmas tree worms – colorful organisms who look like pipe-cleaners sticking out of coral. They retract into their holes with a simple wave of the hand. 

Coming here in October was hit or miss. It was hazy most days, but we're so close to the equator that our skin was thankful. It's not the best month for diving conditions…in fact it’s sandwiched in-between the very best month (September) and the very worst month (November). On our dives, visibility was anywhere between 10-20 meters (33-66 feet). In the good months, visibility can get up to 35 meters (115 feet)! The water temperature was 29° C (84° F). Eat your hearts out San Diego swimming friends!  

Any moment we weren't supposedly "talking, laughing, or dreaming about diving", we tried to get out and see the island.

There are palm trees growing sideways, longtail boats bobbing in the water and pretty pink sunsets.


 One night we released a sky lantern, a custom in Thailand which is considered good luck.

Everything we had read said that tiny Koh Tao is the least developed of Thailand's gulf islands. But now that we have some worldwide perspective, we were caught off guard. This is a big island and there are buildings everywhere. After 6 days on Koh Tao, we only saw half of it. It's on par with Croatia's most developed islands and way more built up than any of Brazil's. Once we realized this, we scrapped our plans of going to the biggest island, Koh Samui.

We like to explore places on foot, but we quickly learned that Thailand's islands are not set up for this. It would be like going to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and trying to sight-see on foot between the resorts. That just sounds stupid. One day we walked in the heat for hours only to wind up at a beach that was covered in trash. After some moments of disappointment, we just had to accept it for what it is.

All over these islands there are amazing bungalows perched along the coastline.

We have no idea how you find out about them. They are not online, there's no tourist information office, and no booking agents. We never could figure it out. When we moved to our second island of Koh Phangan, we gave up our vision of going on walks from a picture-perfect bungalow, and we checked ourselves into a resort.

It's a good thing we were in comfortable digs because from the moment we arrived on Koh Phangan, it just poured rain. We had our hearts set on taking a boat trip to Ang Thong National Park, but all of the day-trips got canceled. This normally would have crushed us, but at this point in our trip, we didn't really care as much. We have seen other islands, and the Whitsundays in Australia would be hard to beat anyway. We can now also say that we know what a monsoon is like. This is not earth-shattering…it's really rainy.

For all of the unexpected frustrations that we encountered on the islands, there were some unique highlights. Hour-long Thai massages in an open bungalow on the sand cost a whopping $6 each. We can’t think of anywhere else where we’ve had beers or dinners on the beach with waves lapping underneath our table.

And our resort hotel room had a mosquito net! I've always wanted to sleep inside one of these. It feels so safari princess. 

To get from Koh Phangan to our next destination, we had to take a truck, ferry, bus, minibus, sleeper train, day train, and small boat. Were the islands worth it? Let's just say at least we split the atom.

October 15, 2012

On The Streets Of Bangkok

After a long 24 hours of traveling we arrived in Bangkok, the capital city of Thailand. 

Once again we found ourselves in a new place with no map, no guidebook, and no plan. It's always scary. This time around it was also a little sad because we knew it was the last time we would experience that feeling of changing continents. Bangkok is much bigger than we expected. It reminded us of Shanghai in that the phrase which comes to mind is shear urban sprawl.   

Luckily we had some major help transitioning. During our last couple of years in San Diego we became friends with our swim coach who is Thai. Chad's parents graciously offered to pick us up from the airport and take us into their home. Sobhon and Ratana are two retirees living the good life in Bangkok. We stayed with them for five days while they completely spoiled us. They treated just as they would their own children, and we are incredibly grateful for their friendship and help.

I think Ratana liked that we were so interested in Thai cuisine. She made it her personal mission for us to try as many new foods as possible. 

When we weren't eating at a mall food court (very common here), we were eating from food carts that line the streets. These days we do a lot of eating off of wooden sticks and out of plastic bags.

Sobhon spent his Saturday touring us around the most famous wats (Buddhist temples).

At first we were surprised how many wats there are all over town. But then when you think about how many churches there are in Europe, I guess it’s not such a big deal. Bangkok is also where the royal family lives, so the city has clustered complexes of beautiful buildings. The architecture looks so foreign to us, and we love it.

We have really enjoyed visiting the ornate wats and comparing the differences between each of them. The most obvious variations are the Buddha statues inside. 

Most are sitting, but they can also be standing or even reclining the point at which Buddha achieved nirvana.

We saw a solid gold Buddha and the holiest of them all – the Emerald Buddha – who is really made out of jade. He has three different outfits that change depending on the season (summer, winter, rainy). Sprinkled around the wats are other structures like stupas, chedis, and prangs. They are immaculately decorated in mosaic patterns, and sometimes even covered in broken pieces of china.

Sobhon showed us how to make offerings before entering the wat and suggested that we make wishes for our family. First we pressed a small square of gold onto a miniature Buddha. Then we lit sticks of incense and placed a lotus flower in a gold cup.

There are also wats that you don’t go inside of, but rather climb on, like Wat Arun

This felt like something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and the view from the top of the scary-steep steps was wonderful.

One day we were walking around a wat complex and stumbled upon a meditation center that we had heard about. We popped in to see it, and the next thing we knew a Buddhist nun was ushering us into a meditation class with four other foreigners. This was not something we had been planning for, but we were excited. We wanted to learn more about what exactly it means to meditate.

We spent three hours with a teacher learning about the different types of meditation, the theory behind it, the practicalities of it, and most importantly the reason for doing it: to get control over your own mind. Then we did our first 15-minute walking and sitting meditation. It is so much harder than you would think! Let’s just say my legs do not bend like pretzels and I did not have much control over my mind to ignore the pain.

Meditation is a lifelong commitment that needs to be practiced every day to be effective. We’re still trying to decide if we would have enough dedication for that, but it certainly is intriguing. At the very least, our meditation class taught us something new, and it will go down as one of our favorite experiences in Bangkok.

Other top memories will be doing seemingly normal things in the most unusual place: 
the street. In Chinatown food cart vendors fill the major thoroughfare which intersects with the nighttime food market. Nevermind the four lanes of car, taxi, tuk tuk, and motorcycle traffic, let's have dinner…on the street!  

Khaosan Road is one of the most ridiculous places we’ve come across. It’s like a movie director took every single stereotypical backpacker and mixed them with a bunch of Thai vendors trying to sell stuff to said cliché tourists. It is prime people-watching territory. So let’s get hour-long foot massages…on the street!

Bangkok feels like South America in that we’re pounding the pavement again in a big city where we don't speak the language. We have to be cautious of what we eat, figure out a seemingly impossible bus system, and hold onto our bags tightly. This is a city where you feel gritty and exhausted at the end of the day. On the other hand, even the nicest of neighborhoods in South America didn't have this:

There is an upper class in Bangkok that rides air conditioned trains, carries iPhones and iPads, and shops at high end malls. We got a good feel for this lifestyle while we were staying with Sobhon and Ratana. We also sampled it with a visit to Sky Bar, where wine is brought to your chaise lounge on a silver platter while Bangkok sprawls out all around.

We visited Bangkok at the end of the monsoon season. Luckily the rain really wasn't a big deal. Every day between 12:00-3:00 the sky would open up and it would pour for about 30-60 minutes. Sobhon joked that they have two seasons…summer and rainy. It was hot and humid (90° +) from the moment we woke up in the morning, but it’s nothing compared to the 104° they get on a day and night basis in the springtime. Sobhon then joked that their seasons should really be hot and hotter.

Bangkok is…tuk tuks, the sound of motorcycles, street food, the beloved royal family, friendly people who are genuine, friendly people who are scammers, fancy shopping malls, and third-world shacks. The city's smog and polluted river are a world away from the pristine nature of New Zealand, but it's all of these things that make Bangkok uniquely Bangkok.